Damich wins tense 500 freestyle

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LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The 500 freestyle is the stepchild of high school swimming, a drawn-out, 20-length race that often sends fans heading to the concourse for a soda break.

But not Thursday night at Bucknell University's Kinney Natatorium.

Chartiers Valley's Drew Damich and Montour's Jarod Kehl, both sophomores, didn't lose a soul from the packed stand with one of the most spectacular 500 freestyle finals in the history of the PIAA Swimming and Diving Championships.

With a surge that belied his tiring stroke, Damich earned his second state gold medal of the meet, pulling away in the final 50 yards to out-touch Kehl with a time of 4:33.75, just .53 of a second ahead of Kehl's 4:34.28.

"It was a tough race," said Damich, who also won the 200 freestyle Wednesday night. "I was getting a little nervous."

And no wonder. At the WPIAL meet two weeks ago, Damich had a comfortable 5 1/2-second win against Kehl, finishing in 4:40.87.

"I was surprised by the way he swam tonight," Damich said. "He forced me to keep matching his stroke."

The two were so close throughout the race that with 200 yards to go, Damich's lead was .02 of a second, almost unheard of in the state championships.

Kehl was thrilled with effort, although he admitted mild disappointment with a second-place finish that wrapped up a great season for him.

"I don't like losing; I swim for the win as much as time," he said. "But it was exhilarating. I knew it was a great race and I was happy to be a part of it."

Damich's two gold medals were the lone WPIAL golds of the Class AA boys meet. Kehl was the only silver medalist from the WPIAL.

Mars' Maggie Gruber ended her outstanding career in style, claiming the 100 backstroke title (54.15) for the second time to finish with a career total of six gold medals. Gruber, who won her fourth 100 butterfly title Wednesday, became just the 14th female swimmer in PIAA history win at least six gold medals, excluding relays. She also was named the female swimmer of the meet,

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